Ever since that day back in 2001 when the Norwegian freighter Tampa rescued asylum seekers from drowning and John Howard refused permission for them to disembark at an Australian port, the political landscape of our country changed. Because we the people endorsed that decision, we must accept responsibility for everything that has happened since. That John Howard’s legacy will be tainted forever by this one opportunistic decision and be the defining measure of his time as prime minister is something for him to contemplate. That we the people have, subsequent to that decision, forced both the major political parties to quiver in their shoes every time the media highlights the issue is something for us to contemplate.
On Q&A last Monday night, Jamie Briggs, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development argued against his government’s culpability in the Manus Island murder of Reza Berati by reminding Labor Transport spokesperson, Anthony Albanese that 1000 asylum seekers perished at sea over the past 5 years. When a debate descends down this path one can see that the substance of the issue has been reduced to the level of its form. It now comes down to the question of who has been more successful in killing the least number of people seeking asylum in the race to stop the boats. Where is the outrage?
When we defend the charge of causing someone’s death with a counter charge that our accuser did the same thing, we should know that we have reached the bottom of the barrel in our moral and social understanding of rightness and wrongness.
When one politician defends his government’s policies that have resulted in a death, by claiming that his opposition’s record is worse, it is the performance of the two governments that becomes the issue, not the deaths themselves. If this is how our elected representatives choose to protect their reputations, and we the people do and say nothing, then by default, we accept that this is a reasonable standard to set in evaluating the collective Australian moral and social conscience. It makes what they do acceptable and we, by our silence, responsible.
When the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison gave his first report on the riots that precipitated the death of Raza Berati, he appeared to blame the asylum seekers for their attempts to break out of the compound. By doing that he showed his inexperience and seemed too eager to demonise those in detention. He then took five days to correct that initial assertion and has thus far not told us why he waited so long to do that. Where is the outrage? If we, the people, accept his behaviour as reasonable, and by extension approve of his actions, it places a question over our moral compass and makes us jointly responsible for the consequences.
That a majority of Australians support the present methods of detention is probably more disturbing than the minister’s actions. We have allowed it to become the single most potent issue that divides us. So where does the responsibility lie? In the final analysis it is with us, the people.
In making this issue so potent we have effectively removed the onus of leadership from our elected representatives and taken control of the process. The elected representatives of the two major parties have demonstrated, all too clearly, the absence of a backbone, an inability to lead with any degree of morality and justice and are guided only by what they think we want. Only The Greens and a handful of righteous but ineffective individuals on both sides have stood in their way. At the last election The Greens captured 8.65% of the primary vote.
What lessons are we to take from the events in Papua New Guinea last week? Unless this becomes an issue that kick-starts a reversal of our attitude toward this sordid low point in our history, the answer is, not much. We seem to have forgotten the words of Lieutenant General David Morrison when he said: ‘The standard we walk past is the standard we accept.’ We can march, we can write letters to our local member, we can protest in a variety of ways but in the end we really only have the ballot box to register any meaningful disapproval. The vigils held in each Capital and Provincial city for Reza Berati barely received a mention in the mainstream media but it was prominent on social media and the images and words published there have been profound. However, without a widespread public outrage expressed through the mainstream media, which itself now appears to be as ineffective as our elected representatives, this immoral and socially disgraceful activity will continue.
Where is the outrage?